In the fourth quarter, the Giants allowed Dallas to take the lead, then grabbed it right back before holding the ‘Boys off one final time and running out the clock.
"I am proud of this team because of the way they functioned today," Head Coach Jim Fassel said. "We knew coming into this game that it was going to be a tough one on the road. I was pleased with the way we played."
Fassel always stresses the importance of winning the turnover battle. Against Dallas, the Giants lost the battle – turning the ball over twice – but still won the war. The stingy Cowboys did not hand New York the ball once.
"This is a very important win for us," said QB Kerry Collins, who threw three TD passes against just one INT. "It really boosts our confidence and is a good divisional win. Every time you can come in here and get a win – it is a good win. They are a good team and really played well today."
Collins hit WR Ike Hilliard for a 12-yard score and Amani Toomer for a 56-yarder before Rivers' late heroics. Playing for an injured Jeremy Shockey, the Giants second-year TE grabbed a 17-yard scoring strike from Collins to clinch New York's victory, which improved them to 3-2 on the season.
"It was good to see Marcellus," Fassel said.
But without New York's balanced offensive attack and solid defensive play, Rivers would have never been in position to make his big play.
The Giants received 94 rushing yards from RB Tiki Barber and 228 more from Collins, who had a QB rating of 114.4 for the contest. Toomer chipped in with 98 yards through the air.
"On offense we executed a lot better," Fassel said.
"Kerry played real well and made some great passes," Toomer said. "Marcellus got in there and made a great play. I thought Tiki had a great game running the ball. We made the plays and came out with the victory. It's one of those things that builds confidence."
Another offensive area of improvement was New York's play on third down and in the red zone, two very troublesome areas to date. The Giants were six-of-13 on third down, for a 46 percent success rate. They also scored touchdowns both times they crossed Dallas' 20-yard line.
Defensively, the Giants hardly smothered the Cowboys (2-3) – who gained 340 total yards – but Big Blue bent when it could have broken. They didn't let RB Emmitt Smith (70 yards) kill them, as he so often has, and also kept QB Quincy Carter in check (262 yards). They also played most of the way without their starting CBs at full strength. Will Peterson left the game due to a recurring toe injury and Will Allen was also slowed by a groin pull.
Yet when it was time to step up, it was the Giants defense that throttled the Cowboys late in the game. Omar Stoutmire (seven tackles) and Allen (six) led the way while SLB Brandon Short and RDT Keith Hamilton added sacks of Dallas' elusive QB.
"This is a game of big plays," Dallas Head Coach Dave Campo said. "They made theirs and we didn't."
And they started early. Short dropped Carter for a five-yard loss on a fourth-and-two play that ended Dallas' first possession. However, RB Ron Dayne was stopped for no gain on third-and-one and New York was forced to punt.
The Cowboys were going after Allen early. The Giants second-year corner had good coverage on Dallas WR Joey Galloway (eight catches, 109 yards), but Galloway came up with the ball for a 33-yard gain. However, Allen would get revenge, breaking up passes on consecutive plays before New York stopped Dallas on a fake field goal attempt.
Holder Micah Knorr took the snap and tried to run around right end, but was dropped by Giants S DeWayne Patmon for a 10-yard loss.
"I always look for that," Patmon explained. "Thank God they did it. With the limited time I get it's nice to make a play. It took points off the board so it helped the team out. It's my job to come off the edge and make the play if they fake it. I made the play and the rest is history."
New York took advantage of Dallas' foolishness, driving 73 yards in 12 plays for a 7-0 lead. Big Blue converted three third downs on the march – a six-yard Toomer catch on third-and-two, a two-yard Barber run on third-and-one, and Hilliard's first TD of the season, a 12-yard grab on third-and-six. Hilliard took Collins' pass and broke Dallas CB Mario Edwards' tackle attempt before diving into the end zone for New York's third red-zone touchdown of the season.
Shockey chipped in an 11-yard grab before leaving the game due to a toe injury.
The Giants then dodged a bullet when Dallas K Billy Cundiff's 45-yard field goal try clanged off the right upright. New York had given Dallas the ball via Collins' seventh interception of the season. He was looking for Toomer on third down, but instead fired the ball right into the gut of Dallas CB Derek Ross. The Cowboys were forced to try for three after Short dropped Carter for an eight-yard sack.
Big Blue averted another potential disaster when Collins recovered his own fumble at the New York 26-yard line. La'Roi Glover sacked him and knocked the ball free, but Collins was able to reach and retain possession.
However, it didn't take Dallas long to knot the score. Smith broke a couple tackles en route to a 30-yard TD run. Smith escaped Shaun Williams' tackle try and skipped in for the points.
The Giants answered right back with Toomer's 56-yard touchdown catch. After Collins connected with Hilliard for an 18-yard gain, he dropped back and fired downfield to Toomer, who had gotten behind Ross. Dallas S Darren Woodson was there but fell down and couldn't make the play.
Late in the first half, Michael Wiley's 25-yard, third-down catch set Cundiff up for a 32-yard field goal.
The Giants got the ball back at their own 21 with 16 seconds to play. This time, a week after Fassel's ridiculous decision to go for the score in Arizona, he instructed Collins to take a knee. He knelt down and pumped his fist as New York headed into halftime up 14-10.
"Did I do that?" Collins asked playfully. "It's nice to take a knee, especially at the end of the game."
Collins would eventually kneel down three times to cap New York's victory.
Before that, New York continued to fight. Barber put the ball on the carpet at New York's 24-yard line early in the third quarter but Hilliard wrestled the ball away from Ross.
New York wasn't so lucky later in the third quarter. Dallas' Michael Myers grabbed Collins' arm as he tried to hand the ball to Dayne. The pigskin popped free and Cowboys DE Ebenezer Ekuban recovered it.
The Cowboys made them pay. Dallas moved 57 yards in 14 plays, bridging the third and fourth periods. With 10:52 to play, Dallas rookie WR Antonio Bryant got open in the back of the end zone and caught Carter's five-yard TD pass for a 17-14 Cowboys lead.
The Dallas drive was kept alive when Shaun Williams was flagged for pass interference following an incompletion on third down. Carter then hit Reggie Swinton on the subsequent third down.
"I was going for the ball, but it most likely was PI," Williams admitted.
But the Giants stormed right back, moving 80 yards in eight plays for a 21-17 lead with 6:51 to play.
"A drive like that can do a lot for your confidence," Fassel said.
With Shockey sidelined due to turf toe, New York's other two TEs got the job done. First, Dan Campbell made a huge catch midway through the fourth quarter. He was open and took a short pass and turned it into a 20-yard gain on third-and-three. Then Rivers got free behind Dallas LB Dexter Oakley for a 17-yard TD.
On Dallas' ensuing possession, Shaun Williams broke up Carter's third-down pass to Ken-Yon Rambo to help protect the lead.
"I had to make something up for my team after the penalty," Williams said.
After New York went three-and-out, Matt Allen got off a huge punt. He drilled a 51-yard punt that, after a holding penalty on Dallas was assessed, left the Cowboys at their own 23-yard line.
The Giants held on for dear life. After a pass interference call on CB Ralph Brown, everyone watched in horror as Bryant blew by Brown on the next play. However, Carter's throw was well over the open receiver's head and New York was able to exhale.
"That's part of the game," Fassel said. "I didn't like to see the ball in the air and the guy running free."
FS Omar Stoutmire dropped a golden opportunity to seal the game when he couldn't corral Carter's pass in the flat that he would have brought back for an easy TD.
Dallas punted and it was up to New York's offense to run out the final 1:53 of the game. Barber got seven yards on first down, then four more to seal it.
"At that point a first down wins the game, that's it," LT Luke Petitgout said. "You have three plays to get it, get us out of here and on the plane home."
They only needed two.
Fassel alerted his troops before the game what an important contest they were about to enter. Then they went out and delivered.
"I told the team [Saturday] night that you have to beat the teams in your division," he said. "I think this was huge. It was our first division game. I think it was critical."